Flashback, summer 2002:
I’m working on a construction crew repairing an old
cottage. It’s lunchtime and we sit and talk, passing the
time. Two of my co-workers are Vietnam veterans and they compare
movies about the war. According to Russ, the Private Pyle scenes in
Full Metal Jacket perfectly capture the feeling of boot camp. Talk
of movies quickly turns to talk of real experiences. Bob drove a
re-supply truck between bases — he never saw much combat. He
tells stories about how they would come back from town supplied
with food, boxes full of black-market heroin and once, a Vietnamese
prostitute who was passed around camp and kept hidden in a locker
during the day when they were working.
Russ cuts in, “We had this cute little girl and my buddy
was fucking her and he looks down and he’s all covered in
blood. There were stories about Viet Cong among the girls so he
freaks out because he thinks she’s done something to him and
starts stabbing her with his combat knife. We’re all lined up
outside waiting our turn and we hear her screaming and run in and
pull him off her. Turns out she was having her period.” Russ
doesn’t say what happened to the girl.
Another afternoon: “We would go into a village looking for
the enemy. The rule was if they ran toward us we shoot because they
might have bombs. If they run from us, then they must be enemies,
so we shoot. If they don’t run at all, then we don’t
shoot. But the enemy knows this and so of course they don’t
always run. We would come in with this big tear gas gun that could
shoot a bunch of tear gas grenades one after another. We’d
fire a bunch of them into the village. Then they would all
“We had this new officer come in to command us —
straight out of military school. He led us into trouble and we
didn’t like him — he didn’t know how Vietnam
worked, and he was going to get us killed, so we fragged him (threw
a grenade into his tent at night, killing him).”
Russ and Bob’s stories shocked me because they came from
people I knew and respected — they were horrible stories
coming out of the mouths of people I worked with. I still have
trouble with my boss nonchalantly telling me he killed innocent
people. But then again, it was Vietnam. Vietnam, that horrible war
where the most horrible things ever happened. Vietnam, that sweaty
jungle where civilization failed and humanity fled. Vietnam, that
war where men broke down and no rules applied.
Sure, Vietnam was a no-holds-barred war with atrocities on both
sides. But the Vietnam War was not exceptional: Vietnam was not
worse than any other war — it was just better reported. Every
other war had just as many atrocities, as many people who went
insane, or woke up at night clutching at a rifle.
We like to think of wars today as gentler and cleaner. We like
to think of them not as war but as peacekeeping missions or as
Operation Iraqi Freedom. We like to forget that the experiences of
the soldiers in Vietnam are the rule of all war, not the
Now the troops are starting to come home from Iraq. As of Feb.
16, according to CNN, 542 U.S. soldiers have already returned in
caskets. Another 3,000 are wounded. Soon 100,000 troops will be
rotated home. Sunday’s New York Times Magazine features a
story about the wounded troops. They can’t sleep. They find
no solace with their spouses.
Our soldiers are coming home permanently injured and forever
mentally scarred. The soldiers have undergone numerous operations
and await expensive prosthetic arms. They sit in counseling
sessions and relay tips about which anti-depressants and sleeping
pills to use. One soldier takes two sleeping pills, drinks two
six-packs every night and still can’t sleep. Another heard a
banged garbage can outside one night, mistook it for an attack,
grabbed his rifle and raced around the block looking for an enemy.
These people will carry Iraq with them forever.
We send young men — and now women — younger than I
to secure hostile fire zones and to suppress the enemy and to
enforce the peace, and we forget that that means remaining on
hair-trigger alert, that it means being mistrustful of everyone,
that it means sacrificing humanity in order to survive and that it
When we stop to carry out the task of counting the wounded, we
should always remember that war, and the struggle to survive in a
battlefield, is a process that destroys both the person on the
receiving end of a bullet and the person pulling the trigger.